10 Years On – How Ireland has Changed Since the Financial Crisis – Highlights from the Conference

Videos of the keynote speeches by former Central Bank of Ireland governor Patrick Honohan and playwright and author Colin Murphy at last Friday’s conference at NUI Galway to mark the 1oth anniversary of the financial crisis can be found here on the website of the Whitaker Institute. I strongly recommend both. Audio podcasts of the two associated panel discussions will be posted shortly.

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‘The Crash’ – Ten Years On

About this time, exactly ten years ago our company in construction in Ireland lost the legal planning permit, for construction of what was to become a new Central Bank headquarters in Ireland today. It was deemed in a court ruling, that a Planning Authority could not amend it’s own master plan without public consultation. Ten years ago, at about this time of the year in October 2008, we learned that we had spent over a year constructing about 150,000 square meters of solid concrete office space, overhead that much again in basement construction, and it’s planning permit was removed from underneath it. No matter how much concrete you pour on top of that problem, it’s still not enough.

Rival real estate developers were calling for our project to be demolished with a wrecking ball. Those were the days of the Celtic Tiger, for sure. When anything seemed possible and anything almost was. It was sort of like being inside of a John B. Keane play in a lot of ways, but on steroids and a lot more psychedelic. The soundtrack in the background playing, was something akin to Placebo, ‘Infra Red’. One last thing before I shuffle off the planet. Someone call the ambulance, there’s gonna be an accident.

That is what I still remember when I turned on RTE Prime Time on the exact date of 4th of November 2008, and my jaw dropped on the floor. I wondered if we would even have a job soon in Irish construction. Soon my concerns would turn out to be exactly justified. That would all happen in 2009. We would enter a whole new chapter, a whole new reality. Headlines about Irish real estate developers would be plastered across news, and remain there until today in October 2018. The truth is, we like to follow property in Ireland, like they follow cricket in India or Pakistan. It’s a matter of utmost national interest.

That was the part that John B. Keane got right in 1960, in his play about something that happened back in 1956. Irish people do get into real conflict, even a couple of centuries after the Famine, about things to do with Land. What became apparent in Ireland about ten years ago, was that the judicial system of the commercial courts and high courts here, would decide an awful lot. There isn’t a definitive story or account written about it. Perhaps there never will. How a group of business people were facilitated to purchase (or at least to think, in their own weird imagination), most of the valuable re-development land in Dublin’s central area. They paid a high prize for that privilege, like being awarded the V.I.P. boot for a night at the most popular night club. You can check in, but you can never leave.

In January 2009, real estate developers were circling the drain in Ireland, but still defiant. Hiring famous London urban designers, to create a visuals of ‘towers’ that soared ten stories in height, constructed on the pricey acre or half acre sites they had managed to buy around Dublin. Next to the seven stories of concrete construction, which was scheduled to be torn down again. Those were the days.

High urban design and real estate misfortune flowed together in some kind of intoxicating mixture, which they only served at the V.I.P. area. What amazed me, was how ‘architectural design’ (my own area of practice), had become weaponized in the middle of it all. To be used as some kind of sword that speculators would spike each other with. I’d never imagined that architecture and medieval battle tactics could be mixed up in that way. We found a way. Combining bad bank lending, over extended credit lines, reckless funding of balance sheets and insolvent, over-extended actors. We assembled all the right elements of a real Greek tragedy.

I lost all faith in architecture after that.

The real casualty of the whole thing, TEN YEARS down the track are the young people of Ireland who had not even come of age back then. They didn’t even know what surprises the future held in store for them. That is the biggest irony. No one has built a single box, shed or living space since then. Even I couldn’t see that twist in the plot coming. An entire generation of young Irish, who are now called ‘knowledge economy’ workers have paid the price. They are the biggest and most contested ‘political football’, that has been around for a while in Ireland. And political blood lines of all kinds, are making hell for leather, to get possession over it.

That is extremely ironic. I remember in 1999. I was working on an urban master plan for Titanic Park in Belfast. It was a year after the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. We had been asked as architects to visualize what life would look like in the new knowledge economy in Ireland.

Our boss, was designer of the master plan project for Belfast river front. He wrote a text for a brochure base around his study of, ‘City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn’, by William J. Mitchell, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. In the brochure we depicted young workers sitting in public spaces, along the river Lagan in Belfast, using laptop computers to work and communicate (smart phones hadn’t been invented). We did get some of the picture right twenty years ago. Yes, we’d all be using mobile technology. However, the knowledge economy kids, or the ‘crash’ ones as economist David McWilliams has called them, wouldn’t have a roof over their heads. Because of all the messing we were about to do with property and banking. That was the ironic bit, right there.

Crash kids with phones, and no homes. Utterly different to the country I grew up in, when we had homes and no phones. Thumbs up Albert, and Bakelite all the way.

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